NASA satellite sees poop, reveals secret penguin supercolony

Gwen Vasquez
March 4, 2018

In Antarctica, scientists on the Islands of Danger found a colony of 1.5 million Adelie penguins.

The researchers went for an on-foot exploration and revealed that the Danger Islands host more than 750,000 pairs of Adelie penguins, representing the largest population in the Antarctic Peninsula.

The team published its findings online Friday in the Scientific Reports journal. But thanks to satellite imagery, a scientist with a hunch (really), and some plucky drone flyers, the city-sized penguin population has made itself known. It's believed climate change, including "changes in sea ice extent and concentration as well as changes in air temperature and precipitation patterns and their possible effects on prey availability" are the primary culprits for the decline in Adelie penguins in western Antarctica.

When the team got to the islands, they found thousands of penguins nesting at the landing site. It would be the biggest populace of Adelie penguins on the Antarctica promontory, and recommends that this species is completing a great deal superior to anything scientists expected in spite of decreases on the western side of the Antarctic landmass because of environmental change.

Alas, when these penguins were first discovered, they did not initially say to the researchers, "Hello from the other side".

It could also help them understand what is causing other populations to decline when these penguins are thriving.

AFP  Getty Images
AFP Getty Images

The geography of the islands explains how these penguins, whose distinguishing features are the white rims around their eyes, have survived without detection: even in summer, the area is so "socked in with sea ice that it is very hard to get a ship through", Lynch also told the WSJ.

"The waters around the Danger Islands have been free from the pressures of krill fishing and have thrived".

"They would essentially mow the lawn, flying across these islands and taking pictures, and we knew we'd have all these images that we would stitch together", Polito explained.

"I thought, holy cow, there are not only colonies, but huge colonies", co-author Heather Lynch, a Stony Brook ecology professor, said in a press release.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says the supercolony discovery supports the need to protect the area around the Antarctic Peninsula. "Finally getting into the Danger Islands and counting the penguins shows how robust populations are where the ice is intact".

A breakthrough discovery of this scale offers ecologists hope: Even in the age of Google Earth, maybe we don't know our planet as well as we think we do. The researchers also used a software to do the counting.

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